Wayman & the Woodcock Award
July 21st, 2022
On June 22, 2022, at the Vancouver Public Library, Tom Wayman formally accepted the George Woodcock Lifetime Literary Award that annually honours an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. The following is his acceptance speech. –Ed.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Beverly Cramp and the rest of the Woodcock Award committee for this honor. And since this is a lifetime achievement award, I’d like to particularly express my gratitude to someone who—ever since 1981, eight years after my first book was published—has been a tremendous help to my writing. So, a big “thank you” to Howard White, not so much for proposing my name to the committee as for his willingness over the decades to publish many of my anthologies, essays, fiction, and poetry. Although Howie is never averse to turning down manuscripts of mine that he doesn’t think much of, he has consistently demonstrated incredible hospitality to my words, and I’m very grateful to him for it.
Authors, of course, aren’t alone in having a lifetime. We who make our art out of the English language realize that the medium in which we create has a history which, whether we’re conscious of it or not, influences our own writing. Since today is officially the first day of summer, here’s Geoffrey Chaucer from 1382:
“Roundel for Summer”
Now welcome, sumer, with thy sunne softe,
That hath this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake!
Saint Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte,
Thus singen smale fowles for thy sake:
Now welcome sumer with thy sunne softe,
That hath this wintres wedres overshake.
Well han they cause for to gladden ofte.
Sith ech of hem recovered hath his make,
Ful blissful mowe they singe when they wake:
Now welcome, sumer, with thy sunne softe,
That hath this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nights blake!
In the springtime of my life, I was very fortunate that although my father was a pulp mill chemist, he was a great lover of poetry. My mother was a social worker, and because of her and my father’s involvement with the Toronto left, they knew many left-wing Canadian poets who also worked in social services: Dorothy Livesay and Miriam Waddington, for example. The poet Earle Birney’s first wife, Esther, also worked in social services, so my parents knew Birney, too. When I was growing up in Prince Rupert 1952-59, and in Vancouver after that, our house had all the latest books of poems by these writers, and also new books by Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, A.J.M. Smith, and that young up-and-comer Leonard Cohen, as well as anthologies of new Canadian poetry,
My father loved to recite poems, too, especially by the Victorians. Perhaps his favorite was A.E. Housman, who in a poem from 1896, like Chaucer, celebrates the change of seasons (poem II from A Shropshire Lad):
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Both Chaucer’s and Housman’s poems, although separated by 500 years of English, offer the traditional literary themes: nature, love, and death. This subject matter is what defenders of the literary arts often point to in order to claim that literature tells humanity’s story. I feel my contribution to the world of letters has been to draw attention to a missing aspect of humanity’s story as portrayed by the arts: an accurate depiction of the effects of people’s daily employment on their lives both on and off the job.
As I’ve written and spoken about a good deal, most anthologies of Canadian literature offer a portrait of a country in which nobody works. In the introduction to my most recent book of essays If You’re Not Free at Work, Where Are You Free: Literature and Social Change (Guernica, 2018), I note that: “anyone can attend a writers’ festival, or scan the shelves of a bookstore, or prowl the aisles of . . . a book fair, and never hear or see any indication that the central and governing experience of people’s daily existence . . . is the workplace. . . . Visit a series of art galleries, take in a ballet or other dance performance, and the result is the same.”
Our employment, however, is far from peripheral to human lives, despite its absence in the arts. As I say in another essay (“To Be Free Full-Time: The Challenge of Work”, also in If You’re Not Free at Work): “Work determines … our standard of living, how much time and energy we have before and after going to our jobs, the place we live. Our employment has a major influence on who our friends are, and strongly affects our attitudes towards an enormous array of events, social movements, artifacts, environments, etc. And despite the silence in which our society wraps participation in the workforce, … [b]ecause of our efforts, the members of our community are fed, sheltered, clothed, educated, entertained, and much more.”
In my own writing life I have tried to counter this taboo against an accurate portrayal of daily employment and its impacts. I’ve written about jobs I’ve held, and encouraged others to do the same. I’ve anthologized examples of people writing about their work experiences, and continue to stay in touch with the few, below-the-radar work writers, work-writing groups, and work-writing-oriented publishers in North America.
I’ve also written about my conclusion as to the main reason for the prevailing taboo, namely that we are not free at work. At most workplaces, to quote again from an essay of mine (“To Be Free Full Time”), “[o]nce we … have begun the working day, we are subject to authority which we have absolutely no voice in choosing. At our jobs, we are often ordered about like children. We usually have little or no control over the quality of the product or service our work creates, over the good or harm caused to other people by the product or service we make, and over how the wealth generated by our labour with muscle and brain will be used.”
Thus, the behaviors expected of a good employee are the exact opposite of the behaviors expected of a good citizen. At work, unquestioning obedience to an unelected hierarchy is demanded. Off the job, we’re supposed to function as critical thinkers enjoying the democratic rights which we are assured continually by academics, politicians, and the media are the foundation of our society. And we’re expected to shuttle back and forth every day between these two wildly different cognitive and emotional milieus.
Not that the routine nature of many jobs as currently organized isn’t also crazy-making. “Routines” from Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973 – 1993 (Harbour Publishing, 1993):
After a while, the body doesn’t want to work.
When the alarm clock rings in the morning
the body refuses to get up. “You go to work if you’re so keen,”
it says. “Me, I’m going back to sleep.”
I have to nudge it in the ribs to get it out of bed.
If I had my way I’d just leave you here, I tell it
as it stands blinking. But I need you to carry your end of the load.
I take the body into the bathroom
intending to start the day as usual with a healthy dump.
But the body refuses to perform.
Come on, come on, I say between my teeth.
Produce, damn you. It’s getting late.
“Listen, this is all your idea,” the body says.
“If you want some turds so badly you provide ’em.
I’d just as soon be back in bed.”
I give up, flush, wash and go make breakfast.
Pretty soon I’m at work. All goes smoothly enough
Until the first break. I open my lunchpail
and start to munch on some cookies and milk.
“Cut that out,” the body says, burping loudly.
“It’s only a couple of hours since breakfast.
And two hours from this will be lunch, and two hours after that
will be the afternoon break. I’m not a machine
you can force-feed every two hours.
And it was the same yesterday, too . . . ”
I hurriedly stuff an apple in its mouth to shut it up.
By four o’clock the body is tired
and even more surly. It will hardly speak to me
as I drive home. I bathe it, let it lounge around.
After supper it regains some of its good spirits.
But as soon as I get ready for bed it starts to make trouble.
Look, I tell it, I’ve explained this over and over.
I know it’s only ten o’clock but we have to be up in eight hours.
If you don’t get enough rest, you’ll be dragging around all day
tomorrow again, cranky and irritable.
“I don’t care,” the body says. “It’s too early.
When do I get to have any fun? If you want to sleep
go right ahead. I’m going to lie here wide awake
until I feel good and ready to pass out.”
It is hours before I manage to convince it to fall asleep.
And only a few hours after that the alarm clock sounds again.
“Must be for you,” the body murmurs. “You answer it.”
The body rolls over. Furious, and without saying a word,
I grab one of its feet and begin to yank it toward the edge of the bed.
Well, my father said toward the end of his life that he was glad his generation didn’t solve all the world’s problems, because if they had, my generation wouldn’t have had anything to do. Being given a lifetime achievement award certainly makes me look back over the arc of my own life.
I judge two experiences as pivotal in shaping who I am and what I’ve written. The first was living in southern California from 1966 to 1968—I had won a scholarship that took me from Vancouver to the University of California at Irvine for graduate studies in writing. I had been working summers as a reporter on the Vancouver Sun, and envisioned grad school as a brief interlude before returning to newspapering as a career. That isn’t what happened.
“The Party” (published in The Hudson Review, Winter 2022)
Stuart Peterfreund, 1945-2017
Dennis Saleh, 1942-2020
Another party at the rambling rental house
on the cliff edge above Shaw Cove beach
in Laguna that October evening, half the people present
up dancing to the Doors’ “Light My Fire”
—seven minutes, more than twice the length
of a standard hit single of those days, organ and drum
and Jim Morrison’s insistent vocals fueling us
as we sway side to side and shift our weight
foot to foot, sweating, as if going someplace.
Several party guests cluster
on the back porch to pass a joint,
still seriously illegal in California. Beyond them,
the night Pacific strikes the beach below
with its own thundering percussion, repeated
and repeated, and the sea also flows west
past rocks on which sea lions
croak and bellow, and farther
to where the rim of the world turns into stars.
Two couples have taken the curving path
from the bottom of the porch stairs down
through ice plant and bougainvillea to the sand
—mostly dark, although checkered by dim patches of light
cast from the windows of other houses along Cliff Drive
or from the windows of the party, and from
the door to the porch opening and closing. One couple
has slipped off their shoes, walking the edge of the
resounding surf. The other
leans together in blackness
to kiss, hands passing down each other’s bodies.
And in the room where so many of us
are pressed close jouncing up and down to
hear what there is no time for—wallowing
in the mire—other people perch on old couches
and chairs, talking together in twos or threes
and drinking, or gather to talk and drink and
reach for snacks by a table crowded with
full, half-full and empty wine bottles,
beer bottles and bowls that contain or contained
potato chips or corn chips alongside
depleted dishes of red and green sauces
for dipping, and an empty one that held
guacamole, gobs of which have dripped
across the tablecloth amid chip shards
and small puddles of the other salsas, beer, wine.
Cigarette smoke spirals up from the talkers’ fingers
and ashtrays balanced on armrests or on the floor
and pours out of lips to saturate the air
with a slowly swirling fog
that hovers above everything.
At the fireplace
that is never used, its mantel jammed with half-empty
glasses and bottles temporarily left on it
by people who have risen to dance, Dennis
and some others stand talking to the poet Robert Bly,
the ostensible guest of honor, here because
he has given a reading that afternoon
at Irvine, where many of those in this living room,
kitchen, porch, or down at the beach
in the darkness outside are students.
Later in the conversation with Dennis,
Robert will abruptly hoist one foot
and kick him in the stomach
apparently for no reason—a moment
Dennis will remember all his life.
And at last the police are at the front door,
summoned by a neighbor because of the noise,
two large cops asking Peter,
who had signed the rental agreement, to end the party.
Our peace can’t be disturbed, one of the officers states.
But when we receive a complaint we act on it.
The police on the front stoop wear as their shoulder patch
an artist’s palette, since the town likes to think of itself as
an art colony, and indeed, Pacific Coast Highway
two blocks inland, which serves as the main north-south street,
is lined with commercial galleries featuring
paintings of the surf by moonlight
—like this night, but without anybody on the sand
and with a bigger moon. And now Dennis,
as at every party once the police
arrive at the door, moves through the dancers,
the drinkers, the talkers, to confront the uniforms and
guns, to object, he says, to their attempt to stop
people harmlessly enjoying themselves, and to argue
it isn’t even 1 a.m. Then Stuart, as usual,
pushes his way to the discussion happening at the door
and in his drunken manner tries to
justify to the cops Dennis’ attitude, believing he can
explain things better to authority, which of course
annoys Dennis and soon those two
are disputing with each other, tonight exasperating Peter
whose sole aim is to get the officers to leave
before they are provoked enough to demand to enter
to check ID or something, and maybe smell the pot
and somebody ends up arrested
with word getting back to the landlord
and having the lease or whatever Peter had signed
cancelled, and all staying here evicted.
The Stones, or Janis, are on the stereo now,
as the police stand firm like time, like
death—You have to shut it down—as the dancing inside
continues, the dancers forgetting for a moment a low mark
on a quiz, or their draft status, or a paper due Monday,
or how to end the war in Asia, or some of their poems
rejected by a magazine, or the situation
in Watts or of Chavez’s farmworkers,
or that they wish they had asked Erin rather than Joan
That dancing, that music,
the party, even after the cops leave
with their warning Don’t make us come back
continues, the dancing has lasted for
years, decades, across a new century, through the fear of
nuclear obliteration, the great fires, fierce rain,
Main Beach and Forest Avenue flooded,
war after war, love after love, that dancing
goes on, the dancing, the party, the night,
The second crucial experience for me was taking part in the Fall 1983 public sector general strike here in BC. If you’re unfamiliar with that event, you can read about it in David Spaner’s new account, Solidarity (Ronsdale, 2021) which BC BookWorld’s summer issue lists at the top of BC’s best sellers. During the strike I saw how coalitions of the impure and the incorrect, united in a mutually beneficial cause, are the only means to make real social change. We may be a planet of wounded souls, but for a few weeks, a new world trembled at the edge of being born: the creation of a more responsive and just way to organize a self-governing society than the present arrangements. Witnessing in those heady days how quickly society can transform itself for the better, like the changes I saw happening all around me in the Sixties, has inspired and consoled me ever since.
Yet both these occurrences so important to my life came to an end, as I will, too. In this transient existence, then, why make art? I’ll close with a poem of mine that wrestles with this question. In the poem three obsolete occupations are mentioned that are now surnames, but here I’m referring to the job, not someone’s name: fletcher, cooper, wainwright. A fletcher was someone who made arrows, a cooper made wooden barrels, and a wainwright made wagons.
“Shelby Wall and John Lent Perform Twelve-Bar Blues at the Upstairs, Vernon, BC” (from Helpless Angels, 2017)
February snowfall outside the big front windows
this evening: the dense array of flakes suspended
as the rhythm of the struck strings of Shelby’s guitar, insistence
of the troubled soul John’s lyrics inhabit,
propel the streets and roofs steadily upwards
through white tufts, like a car on a night highway
amid a snowstorm that, in the headlamps,
rushes at the windshield
—except, as the driving wheel of the verses
cycles again, the words, the chords
draw the jammed room, each building, the town
higher out of the gravity well.
Note by note
we rise through hours
into sparser and sparser air. The sun will fail,
galaxies will fail, the fabric of this universe
will spread and dim, or collapse to an infinite weight
and yet we sang: flint sparked fire,
we hammered steel into steel,
found the recipe for bread, ploughed
the same field for forty years.
Fletcher, cooper, wainwright,
typewriter repairer, it was messy,
it mattered, it didn’t matter. We lift into nothing
trailing behind us the lost chants, incantations,
war cries, denunciations, love charms,
languages, harmonies: it was messy,
it mattered, it didn’t matter. These are what we made
as we ascended amid the snow, as our dwellings traveled
up toward the greater night.
We couldn’t do nothing.
Here where memory simplifies,
weakens and is gone, we couldn’t stop,
we ascended outward to the dark, it didn’t matter, we
As it turns out, George Woodcock (1912 – 1995) thought highly of Tom Wayman’s poetry and wrote about his work as archived in the following link: encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/wayman-tom-0
We have re-printed Woodcock’s essay below. –Ed.
Tom Wayman is one of the few Canadian political poets, and it is perhaps to his advantage as a poet that his politics is somewhat distanced from the contemporary Canadian scene. His is the politics of the North American 1960s, when Wayman was personally involved in the radical student movement in California and when, as he has said, he later lived by “hustle, construction labouring, unemployment insurance, and welfare.” It is, reaching even farther back, the turn-of-the-century politics of the unpolitical, stemming from the antigovernment propaganda of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, and the anarchist movement of that time.
Wayman’s is a politics with its own kind of realism, accepting defeat without disillusionment and having—at least in the imagination—its own imperatives of action. This is suggested in Wayman’s early and moving poem “The Dream of the Guerillas”: “And night quiet / after the dream. / Street lights burn on. / The slogans are calm as dim walls. The clock, the clock says: now / the guerillas are coming and you must go with them.”
Wayman’s radicalism is mingled with a great deal of nostalgia, and he looks to the lost causes of the past as well as to the losing causes of the present. He has actually been a member of the moribund IWW, and he ends a 1977 poem on the continuity of submerged libertarian ideals (“The Ghosts of the Anarchists Speak of George Woodcock”) by having a Spanish anarchist say,
Still, we don’t win So now what happened here
must be written down Not that anybody could list
all the arguments, the wind, the food,
the sweat and thinking and fighting
that led us to try this and try that
to be successful here and fail there. But we need
true words that tell what we did
so compactly, so magnificently
they are like a seed you hold
in your hand and see in it all the intricate beauty
of the strong dark flowers that will come.
Wayman first emerged out of publication in magazines when a group of his poems was printed, with work by three other writers, in Mindscapes. The volumes he has published since then, including Waiting for Wayman, Money and Rain: Tom Wayman Live!, and Living on the Ground: Tom Wayman Country, have projected, as their titles suggest, not only a resolutely minority political attitude but also a highly idiosyncratic personality. There is a great deal of the dramatic in Wayman’s poetic method. A comic person named Wayman faces the world as a Schweikian guerrilla, and in this role he dominates a whole series of poems devoted to exposing the enormities of the world against which the poet clumsily and futilely but relentlessly fights.
But underlying the comedy, and expressed in other poems with a good deal of sincere pathos, is a recognition of the misery and pain of the economically and politically oppressed, who represent the greater part of the world’s population. Despite this recognition Wayman does not give way to despair, but he no longer rises high in the heavens of hope and no longer sees self-sacrifice as an imperative: “I no longer believe my pain / will help another human being.”
In his book In a Small House on the Outskirts of Heaven Wayman remarks in an afterword, “Personally, I find it discouraging that the literary arts—which are touted (and funded—as epitomizing the human spirit)—should help perpetuate the taboo against accurately depicting daily work and thus contributing to human pain. I find offensive each new anthology of Canadian poetry, prose or drama that once again offers a literary poetry of a country—in which nobody works.” Wayman himself has written a great deal about work and how it should fulfill and satisfy a person but how in modern society it usually results in a person’s feeling degraded.
Wayman is not only a good urban poet with a red Wobbly card in his wallet, however. He is also a man sensitive to his environment and avid to spend his leisure in it, and some of his finest poems are about backpacking through the Canadian wilderness. In a Small Town on the Outskirts of Heaven as well as his earlier books contain remarkable lyrical and elegiac pieces about the mountain and island country and the cityscapes Wayman has loved. “Vancouver Winter,” which is almost Eliotian in its clear luminosity, is brief enough to quote entirely:
Like cats at a window
the houses along the wet street
look out on the downpour.
In the window of a house
a cat. In the cat’s eye
drenched asphalt, the line of houses,
smoke from the chimneys streaming
toward the ground
through the sodden air.
There is a broad sweep to Wayman that someone has not unjustly compared to Walt Whitman. He is vigorous, protean in fancy, and more self-critical than most poets of his highly productive kind. Facility is his temptation, but it has rarely led him away from true feeling.